The Frank Man at 93rd and Central Park West
Vasillios Douuris, a jack-of-all-trades Greek immigrant, has carved out a space for his hot-dog cart on a Manhattan sidewalk.
New York - "He's the mayor," says a UPS delivery man eating a hot dog with mustard and sauerkraut. "Well, he should be the mayor."Skip to next paragraph
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"I want to marry him," says a woman who just bought a can of Pepsi and a packet of Skittles. "Just don't tell my boyfriend."
"A true gentleman," says an elderly man finishing a hot sausage with relish and mustard.
"Liars, all of them. He's a first-class jerk," shouts Jimmy, a potbellied bus driver. In his next breath, Jimmy, who's halfway through a six hot-sausage lunch, smiles. "Nah, I was jokin.' He's the man."
It's a winter afternoon on the northwest corner of 93rd Street and Central Park West, and the object of the effusive affection, and derision, of these salty New Yorkers is Vasillios Douuris, a Greek immigrant better known as Billy the Hot Dog Man. Billy isn't best friends with everybody in this Upper West Side neighborhood, just 99 percent of them. "Vegetarians don't like me," says Billy.
Billy's modest, of course. Everybody loves Billy, and why not? He's funny, loud, sweet, gentle, acerbic, and infinitely generous. Don't have any cash? "Get me tomorrow," Billy will say. Have a child with you? Billy will hand the tyke some candy and refuse to accept payment. "Your kids are my kids," he'll say.
Oh, how did I forget? Billy serves delicious weiners and hot sausages (juicy, firm, and tangy) and pretzels (fluffy inside, crispy outside) and has a smorgasbord of candy. Also, Billy's prices – $1 for hot dogs, pretzels, candy, canned soda, and bottled water, and $1.50 for hot sausages, bottled soda, and Gatorade – are half what most other vendors, including the guy directly across the street, charge.
Best of all, Billy is utterly reliable and always at his post from Monday to Friday, whether it's 15 degrees F. and snowing or 96 degrees F. and humid.
During a rare moment this afternoon when no customers are around, Billy steps away from his pushcart. He leans against his beat-up maroon van, which he uses to transport his pushcart and supplies from his home in the Bronx. Billy is 5-foot, 7 inches and weighs 150 pounds. He is hale, with wide shoulders and a flat belly, and has angular cheekbones, scruffy black hair, and wide, round eyes. "What's all that you're scribbling?" he asks, looking at my notebook. "You with the FBI?"
"I need notes to tell your story," I say.
"Me? Who cares about me?" Billy says, laughing. "I'm just a hot-dog vendor."
* * *
I've lived in New York since 1989, and while growing up in the suburbs I regularly visited the city to see my grandparents. I've always loved hot dogs and been curious about the people who sell them on the city streets. I began to gain an inside perspective on New York's hot-dog vending world when I befriended Billy a few years ago after moving to 94th Street and Central Park West. Billy loves to talk, and I love to ask questions.
"How's the burner for the pretzel drawer work?" I asked one day.
"Gas, from Iraq," said Billy.
"Do you have health insurance?" I asked.
Billy laughed. "No way!" he said. "Who could afford twelve-hundred bucks a month? Me and my family, we just don't get sick."
"What are your food costs?" I asked.
"I get pretzels for 40 cents," Billy replied. "A hot dog and bun with fixings is 30 cents. Soda, that's expensive, 30 cents a can and 50 cents for a bottle."
"Where do you go to the bathroom?" I asked.
Billy pointed down 93rd to a private high school. "They give me ice, too. I've got friends."
There are 3,000 licensed mobile food vendors in New York. Most of them are independently owned, largely by immigrants, but some carts are owned by companies.
Vendors control sites for free on a first-come, first-served basis except in and around city parks where they pay a licensing fee determined by a bidding system in which the minimum bid is $600. Last year, the winning bid for the city's most lucrative vending spot – the north side of the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art – went for $326,000.